As the Rangers skate in their first Stanley Cup Final since 1994, it's always worth revisiting--and having a good chuckle about--the franchise's checkered history.
Certainly star-crossed and quite possibly cursed, at least until Mark Messier came along, the Rangers and their fans have frequently been a tortured bunch. Neil Smith, who took over as GM in 1989 and built the team that won New York's last Cup in 1994, says, "When I came there, it's like my office was filled with luggage, all the baggage from the people who had gone before. You better move fast to exorcise the demons. There isn't time to build a team. It's not what have you done for me lately? It's what have you done this minute? The light just turned green, I'm honking my horn. When you work for [Madison Square] Garden, you work under the guise of 'gotta get this done.'"
Smith recalls staring at the retired Canadiens jerseys in the Montreal Forum in 1992. "All those guys played for the Rangers," he says. "When they were great, they played for Montreal; when they were past their primes, they played for the Rangers."
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With that thought in mind, here is a very abridged history--with highlights and lowlights--of what came before this possibly magical, possibly heartbreaking 2013-14 season.
1926: Tex Rickard, a Texas-raised marshal who struck gold as a prospector in Alaska, builds the third edition of Madison Square Garden and creates a franchise in the nine-year-old National Hockey League. The team is known as Tex's Rangers, for the Southern origins of this gregarious gambler, bartender and master promoter. Rickard feuds with almost everyone. He hires Conn Smythe to assemble the team, but fires him before its first season begins. Smythe goes on to buy the team that becomes known as the Toronto Maple Leafs and forges a Hall of Fame career as an owner, coach and GM. He is replaced in New York by Lester "The Silver Fox" Patrick, who was no slouch himself.
1928: Rangers goalie Lorne Chabot goes down with an eye injury in Game 2 of the final vs. the Montreal Maroons, but because New York has no back-up available, Patrick goes in to play net at age 44. He allows one goal in two periods and the Rangers win, 2-1, in overtime to even the series. They eventually go on to win their first Stanley Cup, three games to two. Now, I ask you, could Glen Sather do that?
1940: The Rangers win the Stanley Cup for the third time and then make the sacrilegious mistake of desecrating it. The team's mortgage on Madison Square Garden expired after the season and the team's management celebrated by burning the document in the Cup. To some folks, the deed invited the start of a curse.
1941: Red Dutton, the GM of the New York Americans, is forced to fold his team, a pre-Islanders local rival. Dutton vows that the Rangers will never win another Stanley Cup in his lifetime. He dies in 1987, having fulfilled his hex.
1940s-1960s: Not only is the Cup curse the elephant in the Rangers' room, elephants are kicking the Blueshirts out of their own building. New York misses the playoffs 18 times in 25 years through 1966-67, but the team is usually unable to play at home even when it does reach the postseason because of a contractual agreement that allows Ringling Brothers to hold its circus in the Garden each spring.
1950: Despite playing their playoff "home" games in Toronto, the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Final against Detroit, but still lose in double overtime of Game 7, despite leading 2-0 after the first period.
1955: While toiling for a club that is en route to a 17-35-18 mark and fifth-place finish in the six-team league, Rangers goalie Gump Worsley is asked which team gives him the most trouble. He answers, "The Rangers."
1974: In the playoff semi-finals, the Rangers have the misfortune of running into Philadelphia's Broad Street Bullies, who are bruising their way to the first of two successive Stanley Cups. The Blueshirts hold up long enough to force a Game 7 in Philly, but in the first period, Philly dropped its Hammer--6'-4", 210-pound enforcer Dave Schultz--on wiry 6'-1", 190-pound defenseman Dale Rolfe during a scrum by the net. Rolfe's noggin is turned into a speedbag as his teammates look on, too afraid either of Schultz or drawing an ejection for being the third man in. The Bullies go on to win, 4-3, and credit the Hammer for delivering a message, at the Rangers' expense, that they were to be feared as true Cup contenders.
1975: In perhaps the biggest trade in franchise history, New York acquires Phil Esposito, the game's premier goal scorer for many years, from the Boston Bruins along with defenseman Carol Vadnais, in exchange for Jean Ratelle, Brad Park and Joe Zanussi. Before the deal, Bruins coach Don Cherry and Hall-of-Fame defenseman Bobby Orr break the news to Esposito in a hotel room. When he hears that he has been traded, Esposito says, "If it's the Rangers, I'm jumping." Cherry then tells Orr, "Bobby, you'd better get away from the window."
1979: Thanks largely to the signings of Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, a pair of slick Swedish forwards who starred in the WHA with Winnipeg, the Rangers are fighting for the league's best record in late February when Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin forever becomes Public Enemy Number One by breaking Nilsson's ankle with a hard hip check. Ever since, Ranger fans have been chanting the now-infamous "Potvin sucks!" and parents wash their kids' mouths out with soap for simply uttering the name.
1979: Without Nilsson, the Rangers manage to delay the Islanders' dynasty by upsetting them in six games of the playoff semi-finals. The Blueshirts advance to face Montreal and handily beat the Canadiens, 4-1, in the opener of the Cup final at the Forum. Habs coach Scotty Bowman is so disappointed in the poor play of his star goalie, Ken Dryden, that he plans to use back-up Michel "Bunny" Larocque for Game 2. But Larocque takes a slapper to the mask in warm-ups and cannot play. Dryden starts the game and gives up two quick soft goals, then reverts to his ace form. Montreal rallies and wins the series in five games.
1979: Two days before Christmas, and moments after losing, 4-3, at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers end up in an on-ice altercation with the Bruins after Ulf Nilsson is decked by Boston's Al Secord. While the players scrap, a Rangers fan whacks Bruins enforcer Stan Jonathan with a rolled up program, drawing blood. After the fan takes Jonathan's stick, a swarm of angry B's is suddenly in the stands. One of them, defenseman (and current NBC color commentator) Mike Milbury, pummels the fan with his own shoe. The infamous incident results in fines, suspensions, a lawsuit, and the glass around the ice being elevated to make it more difficult for players to climb over.
1980: Beloved Ranger color man Bill "The Big Whistle" Chadwick, a Hall-of-Fame referee, is frustrated by Barry Beck's habit of passing during scoring opportunities and starts exhorting the Ranger defenseman--out loud and on the air during game broadcasts-- to "Shoot the puck, Barry, shoot the puck!" And so was another chant born, although it took on a more derisive tone when uttered by Islanders fans, who also gleefully taunted the Rangers with cries of "1940!" after Long Island's team started rolling up its four successive Stanley Cups.
1982: Chadwick is interviewing a pair of Rangers wives to help promote the team's upcoming charity dinner. Play-by-play announcer Jim Gordon introduces Chadwick, who begins the interview by saying, "Jimmy, I feel like a rose in between two thorns." It is the same Chadwick who spots Flyers defenseman Behn Wilson in a camera isolation and says, "Behn Wilson, Jimmy. That's Behn with a J." It gets better. Chadwick is told to remember that Behn has an H. Not a J; an H. Bill, remember the letter H. So three nights later when the Rangers visit the Washington Capitals and the camera focuses on Caps forward Bengt Gustafsson, well, you can guess the rest.
1989: It's Ranger mug night at Madison Square Garden. Former Flyer Bob Froese is in goal for New York and that's a bad combination. When he lets in a few softies, fans litter the ice with the mugs. After the game, Froese remarks, "I'm just glad it wasn't machete night."
1994: Rangers captain Mark Messier guarantees a victory before Game 6 against New Jersey in the Eastern Conference Finals. He scores a hat trick. The Rangers win the game and later the series and then the Cup. Red Dutton rolls over in his grave.
1995: The Rangers' hopes of repeating as champs are derailed by the NHL lockout, which begins on Oct. 1, 1994 before the season opens, and shaves 103 days and 36 games off the schedule before ending on Jan. 11. The Blueshirts, with new coach Colin Campbell, finish the truncated schedule a mediocre 22-23-3 and are swept in the second round of the playoffs by the Flyers. Their cross-Hudson River rivals, the Devils, go on to win the first of their three Cups.
2014: After two decades in a post-1994 haze that saw them fail to qualify for the playoffs eight times and fall in the conference finals twice, the Rangers finally return to the Cup final, against Los Angeles. Cursed or charmed this year?
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